Rhetoric and revolution: China’s conversations with Africa

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“Africa is ripe for revolution”.

These words, pronounced by Zhou Enlai during his 1964 African tour, capture the spirit of the anti-imperialist rhetoric promulgated by the People’s Republic of China in Africa during the Cold War. At that time, Maoist China’s long-term goal in Africa was to kindle the flames of socialist revolution across the continent. Standing side by side under the banner of South-South solidarity, China and Africa would push back the colonial oppressors and together forge a new era of Third World partnership. These were not just empty words; the Chinese Communist Party was instrumental in arming and equipping numerous African nationalist parties, many of whom later found themselves at the helm of independent African states.

Much has changed in the African political landscape since 1964. While European colonialism has undeniably left its mark on Africa’s development, the days of Western occupation are over. Today, the threat to Africa is one of economic neo-imperialism, and European powers are no longer the sole aggressors. China itself is seen by many as ushering in a new era of foreign exploitation in Africa. The dilemma facing the new generation of Chinese leaders is how to reconcile Beijing’s historical rhetoric of South-South solidarity with an increasingly pressing Chinese demand for African resources and export markets.

The perceived threat of heightened Chinese interest in Africa has dragged Sino-African studies out of the closet of academic obscurity, turning what used to be a niche interest into the subject of radio debates, television documentaries and dinner-party conversations across the Western world. The trouble is that Western discussions of China’s role in Africa tend to focus on nebulous dystopian visions of Chinese hegemony, rather than placing China’s activity in Africa in the context of its historical ties with the continent. It is perhaps unsurprising then that Beijing seems keen to do the opposite, invoking “the historical context” of its relationships with African nations at every available opportunity.

Indeed, Beijing is doing all it can to fend off accusations that China has suddenly burst onto the theatre of African politics for opportunistic reasons. Instead, Chinese politicians and diplomats describe a complex history of engagement including indirect contact through trade during the Tang dynasty (618-907), rising during the Sung dynasty (960-1279) and reaching a climax during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a period when China not only produced renowned porcelain but was also at the height of shipping technology, prompting several sea ventures to Africa under the command of the Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He (1405-1433).

Looking further down the line to the decades immediately following the foundation of the Communist People’s Republic in 1949 and its participation in the Bandung Conference of 1955, we see Beijing stressing the importance of Sino-African solidarity in the face of Western imperialism. According to Monson, China claimed at this time “to belong with Africans to the ‘Third World’, a category that was defined racially (as non-white) and historically (as formerly colonised). The United States and the Soviet Union, on the other hand, were described as both European and imperialist”[i]. This is the type of language which characterised the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Movement, a new, highly politicised rubric of engagement in which the PRC saw itself as the natural leader of a ‘Third World alliance’. As Monson points out, Chinese propaganda of the Solidarity era depicted China as Africa’s ally against European colonialism and the neo-imperialist and hegemonic tendencies of the USA and the USSR.

Following the deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, we see a dilution of China’s ideological pro-activism towards Africa during the first decade under Deng Xiaoping (1978–1989). Since China’s reorientation away from ideological purity and towards economic priorities, Beijing has tended to avoid overtly political discourse in its dealings with foreign governments and instead placed a greater emphasis on economic co-operation. Nonetheless, despite this shift to an economically pragmatic foreign policy, Chinese diplomats can still be heard repeating some of the old slogans in support of African independence from the West.

While Chinese support for African self-determination during the independence struggles of the fifties and sixties was driven by an ideological desire to spread Communism, China’s support for non-interference today is arguably a product of its insecurity regarding secessionist movements closer to home. Rather than being evidence of a selfless desire to liberate oppressed peoples, China’s belief in self-determination should be viewed as a consequence of its desire to be allowed to conduct its own domestic affairs without criticism and interference from foreign powers.

This is an important distinction because, in the eyes of many African leaders, partnership with China represents an attractive alternative to tutelage by the traditionally patriarchal Western powers, with their insistence on good governance and the pursuit of democratic and economic reforms.  Indeed, many in Africa’s corridors of power are delighted to do business with a China that offers investment, seemingly without any strings attached.

Thus, in the decades since decolonisation, the idealistic rhetoric of liberation and solidarity between Africa and China has been appropriated by those seeking to protect their national sovereignty from external influence. Sino-African solidarity today is not a question of unity in socialism but rather a question of unity in self-determination; it is not a rejection of Western capitalism but rather a rejection of Western paternalism. Rather than being united by the power of ideas, Chinese and African governments are arguably united by a fear of them.

–      Views expressed are entirely the author’s own unless stated otherwise –


[i] Monson, J. (2008). Liberating Labour? Constructing Anti-Hegemony on the Tazara railway in Tanzania, 1965-76. In C. Alden, D. Large, & R. Soares de Oliveira, China Returns to Africa: A Rising Power and a Continent Embrace (pp. 197-220). London: Hurst & Company.

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